Phillip Fulmer’s Record at Tennessee

It’s almost difficult to believe, but Phillip Fulmer has been the head coach at Tennessee for all or part of 15 seasons now. He took over on an interim basis in 1992 after Johnny Majors was fired mid-season, and he’s been the head man ever since. Fulmer is by far the dean of SEC coaches, with the second-longest tenure belonging to Tommy Tuberville who began at Auburn in 1999.

It is pretty remarkable, considering how high the coaching turnover in the league is. The fact that Tennessee won the first ever BCS championship in 1998 is a big reason as to why he is still employed. He recently got a contract extension that automatically extends by a year for every eight win season he posts, effectively amounting to a lifetime contract.

There has been considerable grumbling in Knoxville of late though. Part of it has to do with “the season of which we do not speak” according to Vols fans, the 5-6 campaign in 2005. A lot of it has to do with the fact that Tennessee has not won the SEC since the championship in ’98, and it has only won the conference twice in Fulmer’s 15 years.

In those nine seasons since the title, he has won 10+ games four times and won the SEC East three times. As good as that is for most programs, that’s below the standard that Fulmer set in his first six seasons when he won 10+ games five times and won the conference twice.

The fall from elite to very good coincided with David Cutcliffe’s departure to be the head coach at Ole Miss. Randy Sanders replaced him, and after three seasons of holding steady the offense tailed off from where it had been.

While it’s true that Tennessee did not have another Peyton Manning come through, the Vols still scored 33 a game with Tee Martin in ’98. Fulmer, nothing if not loyal, did not replace Sanders until after the disastrous ’05 season.

From 1993-98, Tennessee failed to hit 400 points in a season only once; from 1999-2005, Tennessee hit 400 points exactly once, scoring 400 on the nose in 2001. Cutcliffe returned, and it took just one warm up season before UT reached that plateau again, scoring 455 in 2007.

Throughout the past decade, John Chavis’ defenses have been good, allowing more than 300 points in a season just once (ironically, in the SEC East-winning 2007 year). That means the Big Orange faithful have their eyes squarely on first-year offensive coordinator Dave Clawson’s new offense. The hope is that he can add some new wrinkles that haven’t yet been seen coming the home sideline in Knoxville.

On to Fulmer’s record, first by site:

Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee
Site Wins Losses Totals
Home 89 16 105
Away 47 19 66
Neutral 3 3 6
Bowls 8 7 15
Totals 147 45 192

As before, games against I-AA competition have been left out.

Overall the record is one of consistent good teams, with a winning percentage of .766 for all 15 seasons. The only glaring weakness is the bowl record, which I would have thought would be better.

Here is Fulmer’s record broken down by tier of opponent. As always, first-tier opponents are teams that had a winning percentage of .750 or better, second tier were .500 to .749, third tier opponents were .250 to .499, and fourth tier opponents were .249 and below.

Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee
Tier Wins Losses Pct. Avg. Scored Avg. Allowed
First 23 26 .469 22 24
Second 50 16 .758 30 21
Third 53 3 .946 34 15
Fourth 21 0 1.000 42 11

I can’t find too much to quibble with here. Fulmer has been about even against the best teams over time, which is about all you can reasonably ask of a coach. The guys who run up big winning records against top tier competition are the exception, not the rule.

This is nice and all, but as I said above, the question about Fulmer is concerned with the time after the national title. Did he go soft? If so, but how much? What changed? To answer those questions, I supply these same charts for his time before and after the title.

Phillip Fulmer 1992-98
Site Wins Losses Totals
Home 41 3 45
Away 18 6 24
Neutral 3 0 3
Bowls 5 2 7
Totals 67 11 78
Phillip Fulmer 1992-98
Tier Wins Losses Pct. Avg. Scored Avg. Allowed
First 13 8 .619 27 24
Second 21 1 .955 34 18
Third 26 2 .929 40 15

What we see here is an excellent record. He had an .859 winning percentage, just three home losses, and sparkling record against the top two tiers. Basically, he won the games he should have won and did pretty well against the best teams.

Here are the same charts post-championship:

Phillip Fulmer 1999-2007
Site Wins Losses Totals
Home 48 13 45
Away 29 13 42
Neutral 0 3 3
Bowls 3 5 8
Totals 80 34 114
Phillip Fulmer 1999-2007
Tier Wins Losses Pct. Avg. Scored Avg. Allowed
First 10 18 .357 19 24
Second 29 15 .659 28 23
Third 27 1 .964 29 16

This suddenly went from great to just plain above average. The winning percentage dipped to .702, it became easier for opponents to win on Rocky Top, and the performance against the top tiers took a big turn to the south.

You’ll notice the defensive numbers are roughly the same, except for a five-point increase in points surrendered to the second tier. That probably wouldn’t have made a difference if the offense still scored 34 a game against that tier, but it fell by a touchdown to just 28. Suddenly a lot of those comfortable wins became a bit more exciting.

The record improved against the third tier somehow, but Tennessee couldn’t manage to put up even 30 a game against foes that finished under .500 on the year. Sure most people think of a boring running game and a defense-first philosophy when they think of the Vols, but their offenses could score with the best of them in the ’90s under David Cutcliffe.

It only took Cutcliffe two seasons to get the scoring back up to around where it had been before. Since Chavis’ defense will likely still be great with Rico McCoy and Eric Berry leading it, the burden has been rightly put on Dave Clawson to keep up the offensive gains realized under Cutcliffe. He must bring the declining running game back to a high level and make things less predictable.

Fulmer’s contract extension essentially ends any speculation of him being let go, providing another 2005 disaster doesn’t occur. The offseason chatter I’ve seen from the folks in orange has been cautiously optimistic, with high hopes for the Jonathan Crompton/Clawson combo.

At this point, Fulmer is what he is. That is why bringing in the relatively unknown Clawson was unexpected, but it could be the breath of fresh air the program needed to put it back over the top in the conference.

Will Clawson make Tennessee’s offense dynamic again, or will he have as little influence as Jimbo Fisher did in year one at FSU? It’s just one of the many interesting subplots that will make the 2008 college football season great.


4 Responses to Phillip Fulmer’s Record at Tennessee

  1. SC_Gator says:

    Just as a note… you have a 53-3 overall record against 3rd tier teams, then break it down to 26-3 and 27-1. That adds up to 53-4, not 53-3. Good article though, and a rather enlightening series on the whole.

  2. year2 says:

    Good catch. Thanks.

  3. RichMort says:

    Good article, research and obsevations.

  4. daniel brown says:

    fulmer’s recruiting record has been excellent, but he has consistently taken top 5 recruiting classes to maybe top 25(maybe) seasons. He’s had the players, but not the balls. The year Bama marched down the field to kick a game winning field goal as time ran out, was the last time I was in Neyland stadium. Johnny Majors let me down, Phil Fulmer’s record in big games has been plain old miserable.And it’s the big games that determine your legacy, not the tomato cans.I’d like to see fulmer stay on as a recruiter and hire Spurrier or the coach from Boise State to run the football team.

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